Robert and Carolyn spent the end of August on their honeymoon. After two weeks of tanning on the white beaches of the Maldives, they arrived in Dubai for more of the same – but with the allure of shopping thrown into the bargain.

The rows of cranes on the skyline hardly came as a surprise, following countless reports in the British press about the construction boom under way in the emirate. But a stroll along Jumeirah beach told another story. Here, the once crystal blue waters of the Gulf now resemble stagnant bath water, heavy with silt, foam floating on the surface. The sandy shoreline crunches underfoot with the sound of dead coral, while trucks appear regularly to dump sand on the city’s beaches to prevent further erosion of the coastline.

It only takes a short walk along the coast to find out why. Dubai is spending billions of dollars to dredge and reclaim vast stretches of land, in the hope of creating a slice of paradise for tourists and new businesses alike. Spurred on by the oil boom of recent years, the list of projects along the 72-kilometre stretch of shoreline continues to grow.

Major undertakings

To the north lies Palm Deira – an offshore development set to be larger than Manhattan. It will be the third man-made, tree-shaped island to grace the Dubai coastline. Less than 30 kilometres along the coast is Palm Jumeirah – 12 times smaller than its counterpart in Deira, but nevertheless a major undertaking. Minutes away lies Palm Jebel Ali – next to Jebel Ali container port, which is itself in an almost permanent state of expansion involving yet more dredging. Nestled between these projects is The World, an archipelago of 300 islands arranged to mimic the shape of global land masses. And then there is Dubai Maritime City (DMC), serving the marine and shipping industries, which has also required significant dredging and reclamation.

But the biggest offshore development is yet to come. The Dubai Waterfront scheme will cover an area almost three times the size of Washington DC, adding some 375 kilometres of new shoreline to the UAE. It will be the biggest waterfront development in the world.

‘It is unbelievable how fast Dubai is changing,’ says one contractor working on Palm Jumeirah. ‘You have to consider the fact that there are no laws holding up construction and hardly any environmental opposition. It’s essentially open for developers and – unlike a place like Singapore, which is 40 per cent reclaimed – there is no seven-year wait before building begins.’

But the sheer scale of tourism development is beginning to damage the tourism industry itself. ‘The ongoing construction behind us and in front of us has hurt,’ says the general manager of a five-star hotel in the Al-Sufouh area. ‘I would estimate that occupancy rates are down by about 15 per cent on last year.’

The evidence can be seen at first hand. Local divers say the situation is slowly getting out of control, with coral reefs and oyster beds being buried under the weight of sand and rocks, while marine life has either been asphyxiated or is staying away. ‘[Underwater] visibility has decreased to a minimum,’ says Ibrahim al-Zubi, director of environment at the Emirates Diving Association. ‘Currently, nine of our popular sites are being affected by dredging activity, four of which cannot be dived at all and soon all of them will be non-diveable if action is not taken.’

There are growing fears that this damage will be permanent. ‘Dredging and reclamation on a massive scale in shallow waters are bound to fundamentally change coastal ecology,’ says a spokesperson for the Emirates Wildlife Society (WWF-UAE). ‘This is impacting ecosystems such as seagrass beds, lagoons and coral communities; as well as adversely affecting fish stocks, turtles, dolphins and dugong habitats.’

The Regional Organisation for the Protection of Marine E